How to Return to Work Safely

Ways for you and your employer to help avoid fresh outbreaks as the economy restarts

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
7 min readMay 8, 2020

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Businesspeople wearing masks in the office and sitting at further distances.
Photo: martin-dm/E+/Getty Images

Most people have little control over when or whether they can — or have to — go back to work, as health officials, politicians, and companies make decisions about restarting the economy. But there are several steps many workers can take, particularly office workers, to reduce the risk of infection for themselves and co-workers when they do go back. These measures dovetail with preventive steps bosses and business owners can take in order to avoid fresh outbreaks and keep their workers safe.

Beyond ensuring adequate testing and contact tracing for Covid-19, the most important measure to help prevent the spread of the disease in the workplace involves bringing only critical workers back initially — the minimum needed to get a given business rolling, says Joseph Allen, DSc, assistant professor of exposure-assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Beyond that, the solutions are many, and they should all be employed. “There’s no silver bullet here,” says Allen, a forensic investigator of sick buildings, in which employees fall ill due to mold, bacteria, or other pathogens that often prove difficult to find, and co-author of the new book Healthy Buildings.

How Covid-19 spreads

Understanding the range of protective measures requires an understanding of the ways SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, is now thought to spread:

  • By direct contact with an infected person
  • When infected respiratory droplets from a cough, a sneeze, talking, laughing, singing, or breathing fall to surfaces that are then touched by another person
  • When smaller infected droplets, called aerosols, stay suspended in the air for several minutes and are inhaled or ingested by others
  • Through human poop (yes, you heard right)

“The question of which mode dominates is largely irrelevant,” Allen argues. It doesn’t matter if a given infectious pathway is responsible for 2% or 50% of cases, and we may never find out (these percentages are not known for the flu, he points out). What matters is taking…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB